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Fit for Purpose

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A few months ago I bought a new iMac. It wasn’t my first so I knew it’d be delivered in a plain brown cardboard secondary box as a precaution against opportunistic theft, even though this stops the inner box advertising the company and one’s smugness. In a masterful example of packaging design, the side of my brown box folded down, teaching me how to open the inner box yet, it seemed excessive, almost ostentatious and definitely performative. “Unboxing iMac” videos are a thing on YouTube.

The packaging exists to add value to the product but the boxes themselves are also a product.

Packaging has many functions but protecting the product has many meanings. Batteries don’t need protection from accidental dropping yet their packaging is close to indestructible in order to deter shoplifting. Eggs, on the other hand, are fragile yet usually sold in thin plastic cartons that are rigid enough for cartons of 10 or 12 but wobble with cartons of 24.

There’s a famous 1970’s book called “How to Wrap Five Eggs”, describing various examples of traditional Japanese packaging. Wrapping five eggs uses materials that are biodegradable zero-cost leftovers from some harvest yet, it also seems excessive. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know the designer. This book celebrates a culture that thought so much and so hard about how to package five eggs. It’s still performative ingenuity and not much different from how to box an Apple. My problem with the Japanese eggs is that we don’t know if the purpose was to carry them home or to market. It makes a difference and, if we don’t know, all we can do is marvel at the ingenuity without thinking of its purpose.

How to wrap five eggs.

I thought of this book yesterday when the person in front of me at the checkout was paying for eggs and intending to carry them home in the tied and priced plastic bag they were weighed in. The bag was fit for purpose.

I’m not going to suggest expensive computers be delivered in re-used cardboard boxes stuffed with newspaper but sometimes that’s all packaging needs to be. I’ve written about how things I order online are delivered in cardboard boxes re-formed from other cardboard boxes. It’s not necessary to pulp and recycle a cardboard box to use it again. Re-used or re-formed boxes are fit for purpose and will be collected and sold on to be used and/or reformed again. This is a dimension in which ingenuity and economy exist as something distinct from design. The topmost box in the image at left below contained a pair of shoes within newspaper stuffing. The tonic water on the right was delivered in a Jack Daniels box.

Calling this way of looking at things “vernacular design” is inappropriate because it’s thought, not design. All that vernacular design means is that something isn’t “designer designed”. The term fit for purpose seems to be the best fit because it suggests that any additional thought, design or even functionality is as redundant as gold-plating. Dustpan and broom sets like these ones below are seen in houses and apartments across Japan, China and most likely all across South-East Asia.

Something less designed is used outdoors to sweep garden paths and footpaths. It won’t last forever but it’s easily and inexpensively replaceable and, importantly, is all that’s needed to do the job.

Removing leaves from paths and litter from streets isn’t something that requires a leaf blower or a leaf vacuum. These next ones are all made in China but, in two years, I’ve never seen a leaf blower yet lawns, paths and streets stay leaf-free.

These brooms are lightweight, silent, biodegradable, and require little energy to manufacture or use. They are also stunningly effective at sweeping leaves off grass. The pliant twigs are more rigid than the bristles of a broom yet softer and gentler on the grass than the tines of a rake. The end of the broom is often slightly angled to make horizontal sweeps more efficient and ergonomic.

The outdoor complement to the dustpan is what looks like a cooking oil can with a bamboo handle attached with wire. It also does the job and once again it’s difficult to think of anything that serves its purpose better. The conical hat the man below is wearing is of a type usually made from straw, or palm or bamboo leaves, and is worn by gardeners, street cleaners, farm workers and anyone else who needs a broad-brimmed hat for outdoor work. They’re lightweight, biodegradable, inexpensive, and of course protect from sun and rain. Nobody knows who designed them. Nobody can design them any better. They’re made the same way they’ve been made for centuries.

Buses and vehicles used by the public are covered in graphics and advertising. This charter bus is advertising Tengqiao Smoked Chicken.

It’s a different story with commercial and trade vehicles with nothing to communicate except their registration, their affiliation, and legal requirements for seating and loading. The registration number is stencil spray-painted sufficiently large for fast OCR at toll booths. It’s a sophisticated system but the evenness and sharpness of the stencilled registration number is no more than it needs to be.

With these next examples, the job is to convey information and the system again is fit for that purpose. Some vehicles may have stenciling more precise or fuzzy but it doesn’t seem important. The recurring circle motif for the company name is the only art but even this might just be because it uses less space.

Much outdoor text in China is stenciled and it’s easy to see this as a response to the complexity of the characters. Information needs to be conveyed but it’s not so precious as to engage a signwriter, graphic designer or calligrapher. Here’s some “NO STOPPING. RESERVED FOR FIRE APPLIANCES” signs being stenciled. In many other countries, roadway signs such as these would probably also be stenciled, but the foreground caution signs probably not.

Gardening has many examples of fit for purpose. The people who pruned these trees will use the pruned branches as brooms to gather the clippings. You see this a lot.

These next trees are being propped up by branches joined together by twisted wire until their root systems fully develop. (This is particularly important in locations such as this where the water table is high.)

A length of wire is doubled and wound around the pieces of wood or timber to be connected. The end with the loop is crossed over the paired wires at the other end, the conical end of a metal road is inserted into the loop and the wires twisted and tightened around the wood. I know this simple metal tool as a “twitching rod” or “twitching iron” but that’s another story. Nowadays, open grain silos in Australia are simply covered with large tarpaulins.

  • Fit for purpose is different from makeshift which is a quick and temporary fix until something is either repaired or a better solution either arrives or is thought of.
  • Fit for purpose is when something is no more expensive or complicated than it needs to be to do the job to the required standard.
  • Fit for purpose is the enemy of consumerism and products that have “cycles” with planned obsolescence designed in by either manufacture or fashion.
  • Fit for purpose is counter to economic models based on increasing consumption to justify ever increasing production.

We could all do with less design and not just for the “big ticket” purchases. “Shopping as entertainment” removes the notion of need from even the things we think we need. It wants us to detach the notion of utility from the things we do buy and see the act of buying as the actual content of shopping. Thanks for that, Mr. Koolhaas! You can usually tell when this is happening as you will hear the terms such as “consumer experience” or “consumer destination”. It’s happening again with local street markets now being touted as the alternative to the decline of department stores as well as to the rise on online shopping. They always were.

Ladders in China are another object no more complicated or durable than they need to be. Again, China manufactures a great deal of aluminum ladders but, in two years, I’ve yet to see one.

What I do see are people using ladders less expensive, less sophisticated and less designed but that are fit for purpose and with a total absence of value-adding design. Here’s three I’ve seen in the past few weeks. The one on the left is some slender but straight tree trunks cut and lashed together. The one in the middle has been more carefully crafted while the one on the right has been quickly fabricated on site by a carpenter.

The construction industry also has many examples of objects fit for purpose. This carpentry bench complete with circular saw has been made on-site by a carpenter in perhaps a morning’s work. When it’s no longer needed, it’ll be disassembled and the wood maybe used for something else.

This is a wheelbarrow typical of the region in which I live. Gardeners, construction workers and road workers all use wheelbarrows to this design. They’re simply manufactured and durable but heavy. The two wheels make them very stable, and the position of the axle means they can be used to transport and tip heavy loads or even concrete.

My last example is this simple bridge made from five posts and a cross bar lashed together to support two bridge planks. It might exist only until the planting on the small island is established or it might be replaced by something more decorative in the future. This would be a shame because it’s already perfect for what it is and where it is. Anything else will not be an improvement.

Fit for purpose is the opposite of innovation in general and disruptive innovation in particular. If we overvalue “innovation” as we do, then we’ll look down on fit for purpose as something inferior that only people in underdeveloped countries need worry about. It’s not. It’s something people in developing countries need to worry more about. From their time in Africa, Lacaton & Vassal were inspired by a local awareness and intelligence for fit for purpose and they used this awareness to devise an intelligent and timely architecture. Unfortunately, its recognition in the form of a Pritzker and a GSD invite for them was its kiss of death, leaving us no closer to an architecture of fit for purpose, let alone one fit for purpose. Fit for purpose is a universal way of finding a balance between resources, energy and utility. Given the abundance of examples in China, I wouldn’t be surprised if a Chinese architect is next to show us what it all means for buildings.

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  • I’m reminded of Chris Jones’s description of vernacular design as “unselfconscious”. He also describes how vernacular designers work within their social, cultural, and technological bounds, and how incremental adaptation contrasts with disruptive innovation.
    I think all this still leaves room for convulsive change, though, in which a breakthrough improvement occurs as a natural development rather than as the point of the thing itself.
    A few years ago there was a lovely book titled “Design by use” from Germany, if I recall correctly, that was academic in its style but has some real gems of ideas within it.
    Finally, a well timed visit to a museum last week reminded me of the role of *craft* in these discussions. It’s an aspect that is easy to forget about in the self-conscious design world, but maybe it is a different kind of consciousness: one that is about material and making. The ‘making’ part, I think, gives agency back to the people who are doing the designing (in the broadest, most optimistic sense of things) and lets me appreciate how the broom is designed while also being humble!

  • I got a heavy “the Dacha” vibe from this post. Dacha is the home of fit for purpose, but as you had capitalized, the glamorous dacha is there to counter it.

    Yet another example was a mom of my more affluent friend at school who had a couple spare twig brooms in the trunk of her Jaguar. A twig broom is very good at sweeping snow away from the windshield. and it comes in handy unlike some plastic brush contraption or anything else. It can’t break and when it’s unusable you don’t feel like you could repair it.

    Otherwise it was very much a pleasure to see that people of China are not alienated from building their things themselves. The photographs reminded me of my grandfather’s house and the different ladders he had that he built and there was a wheelbarrow with a pair of repurposed Antonov-24 nose landing gear wheels procured I do not know how. In the attic of a barn he stored the timber orthodox cross he had carved for his own grave. Yeah I had some timber and some time, he told me, lighting another Prima cigarette.

    So yeah this everyday makeshift craftsmanship is a layer of decency that’s being eroded away and replaced with leaf blowers and aluminum stairs.